How a madman helped me to stop doubting my value

This is a story about doubt, weaknesses that cripple us, and a deranged concordance maker who did what no sane man would attempt, simply because he didn’t know it couldn’t be done.

Sometimes I doubt my ability to write anything worthwhile. Am I capable of writing well? Will other people toss my book aside? Is my bipolar disorder going to hurt my writing ability? 

Doubt whispers, “You aren’t good enough. Look at how many often you’ve failed. Remember that story that fell apart because you didn’t know how to write it? That’s who you are as a writer and that’s all you ever will be.”

It’s not just writers who hear that whisper. That voice echoes in our heads when we fail, remember past failures, and see ourselves failing now. “Look at your weaknesses,” it says, “You’ll never be useful. You’ll never do anything good.”

We think our past determines our present. We believe that our weaknesses make us unable to do good for anyone.

Enter Alexander Cruden, concordance maker, proofreader and occasional madman.

Cruden lived in the 1700s. He had bouts of insanity and his behavior was often bizarre, sometimes frightening. After deciding he was to reform the morals of the British people, he titled himself “Corrector of the People” and went around telling strangers to keep the Sabbath; he proposed to women that didn’t desire his attention; he whacked disorderly soldiers on the head with a shovel while telling them not to swear. Most of us would avoid him.

He didn’t realize what was appropriate or probable. Who in their right mind proposes to women without courting them first? Who believes he can single-handedly correct the morals of an entire country?   

Yet his inability to recognize what is probable and possible drove him to write a concordance for the King James Version of the Bible.

No co-workers. No financial backing or publisher or patron. No reason to believe that one person could write down each of the 777,746 words of the KJV, mark each and every reference, and produce lengthy essays on particular words. 

Nothing except his pen, paper and a sense of divine calling.

He completed the task in little over ten years. Cruden’s concordance is still in print, almost three centuries later, still being used by those who study the KJV. (Cue writer’s envy here.) Even if you don’t find spiritual value in the Bible, you have to admit that this is quite a feat. 

What sane person would attempt that?

What sane man would plead for a stay of execution days before the event? Cruden didn’t know that a prisoner’s case wasn’t reconsidered that close to the date; he pleaded, the court relented, the prisoner was deported, not executed.

What sane man would feel sorry for the prostitute that propositioned him and hire her to do legitimate work? Cruden did. The woman lived a respectable life afterward.

As someone who suffers from mental illness, this encourages me. An insane man wrote a concordance, saved a life, and gave hope and practical help to a desperate woman. His past behavior and present maladjusted mindset didn’t stop him from accomplishing things of value.

Those weaknesses and failures and dangerous actions were what made him who he was. That obsessive drive made him persevere in the face of the impossible, whether that was saving a life or writing a concordance.

Sometimes we dismiss people like Cruden and others we deem as unable to contribute to society. Too young or old. Too stupid or ignorant. Too inarticulate. Too messed up emotionally or mentally. Too weak . . . You’ll never be able to do that, you’ll always be a failure, you’ll never do anything worthwhile. Look at your past, your failures. Look at your weaknesses.

Sometimes the person we dismiss is ourselves.

But each person has something to give to others. When we put aside those crippling doubts, we find ourselves in Cruden’s position: flawed but valuable.

We all can make a difference in another’s life, in our community, and in our world. Even in our weaknesses, we can make a difference. Especially in our weaknesses. 

Even me.

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